Ina Rajchman (a.k.a. Richman) Silbergleit was born in 1937 in Warsaw, Poland, home to 445,000 Jews by March 1941. Her parents were Rena and Stanislaw (Stasiek) Rajchman. She had a brother Richard, who was six years older, and a German nanny who cared for the children while their mother travelled a lot. The family were very assimilated, secular Jews and politically conservative. They lived on the second floor of a three-story home at 21 Ogrodowa on the border of what would become the Jewish ghetto and the Aryan side. Her father owned and operated a lace factory across the enclosed courtyard from their home; the factory was set up for him by her maternal grandfather who owned lumber businesses with her uncle Abraham M. Mussman (Mietek) at 10 Srebrna in the Jewish quarter and two other towns. The family business was very successful, which allowed them to live a life of relative luxury.
In October 1940, the Jewish ghetto was created and a month later was sealed off by a high wall; some 30% of the population of Warsaw was packed into 2.4% of the city’s area. The lace factory was soon taken over by a German businessman and S.S. official named Bernard Hallmann, who had been a business associate of her father before the war. The factory was converted into a repair facility for German uniforms. After the Germans came in, Ina’s father continued to manage the factory and her mother ran the soup kitchen for the Jewish workers who were brought in to work during the day. The children were supposed to remain non-visible and hid when the Germans appeared. There was no school to attend, but Ina somehow learned to read, especially “Quo Vadis,” one of the few books they had.
Ina refers to Hallmann as her family’s “Schindler.” In exchange for his protection, the Rajchman family surrendered money, jewelry, furs, silverware, and other valuable items to Hallmann and his wife back in Germany. In April 1943, Hallmann warned their family of the impending final liquidation of the remaining 60,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto after several years of actions and mass deportations. Hallmann provided his car and driver to take the family out of the ghetto to pre-arranged housing on the Aryan side. They moved around to three different apartments over the next year, living a cloistered life in the apartments, although not in attics or other hiding places. Following their escape from the ghetto, their lives became very difficult while in hiding; they did not have food, were required to remain silent, and had to “schedule” bathroom trips. She remembers reading constantly and that her Aryan-looking mother was able to go outside occasionally.
In August or September 1944 during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, her family took refuge in the apartment of an elderly, aristocratic-looking Polish engineer on the outskirts of Warsaw. During that time, the Nazis invaded their building looking for Polish insurgents (supposedly there were no Jews left) and captured her father and brother. To the best of her knowledge, the Nazis shot her brother and father shortly after the raid. Ina and her mother were rounded up with other Polish tenants in the building and were taken to a nearby walled field [Prushkov]. For a week or ten days, they were subjected to horrifying conditions. There was no food, shelter, or water and Nazi soldiers with machine guns regularly took “target practice” at random prisoners. Seven-year-old Ina was sheltered under blankets to protect her from abuse.
Eventually, the Nazis placed their Polish prisoners on a passenger train (not cattle cars), most likely headed for a concentration camp. As the train slowed down in a small Polish village, some onlookers yelled to them, “Jump off the train and we will help you.” Ina and her mother, with approximately thirty other Poles, did just that. Several were immediately shot and killed by Nazi soldiers, but most escaped safely and were led by the compassionate villagers to a nearby school auditorium or hall where they hid overnight. Then Ina and her mother walked across country for three days to a village (possibly Brwinow, near Katowice, Poland) where her mother knew someone. A Catholic piano teacher hid them for 6 months out of the kindness of her heart. In exchange for hiding them, the woman sought to convert Ina to Catholicism. The priest came to give her instruction and she remembers praying rosary for hours. Once the Germans came to the house, after hearing that Jews might be hiding there; she hid Ina and her mother in a closet, warding off the soldiers by exposing her pus-encrusted legs to them.
In that village, Russians came in and liberated them—like the final scene in the movie “Life is Beautiful”—with soldiers throwing candy at the children. Her mother saw trouble coming, was inventive and brave, and went back to Warsaw for a few days to search for survivors. Ina remembers that, wherever they went, her mother carried diamonds in the hem of her dress and in enclosed buttons. Both of them went back to Warsaw and found a friend’s half-bombed out apartment and paid the friend’s maid to live there, selling one of her two remaining diamond earrings for money to live on.
Ina’s uncle Mietek, who was already in the United States as the family’s man outside Poland and whose wife and two children (Franka, Nina, and Bronek) were killed in Poland, found Ina and her mother through UNWRA, an organization that looked for survivors. He arranged for them to go to Sweden, where he had business contacts from the lumber business, to wait for a visa to the U.S. Before she would leave Poland, Ina’s mother insisted on replacing the family tombstone that was destroyed during the war with money her brother sent from the U.S. For this, she was denounced as a capitalist and arrested. After a night in jail, she was let go and they left for Sweden.
They spent three years in Stockholm, where they met other survivors from Poland, living first in a room in an apartment and then in a pension in the country with other displaced persons. At first, she attended classes set up by the Jewish community in Stockholm, learning English with a dozen other children to prepare to go to the U.S. Her uncle also sent her Readers Digest magazines to improve her English. Then she took the train to a high school in Stockholm, catching up and fitting in within a few months. For the first time in her life, her mother went to work in a shop that made leather purses.
When they arrived in New York from Sweden, they went to Macy’s and bought Ina her first pair of jeans and went to see the Broadway show “South Pacific.” Then they went to Sardinia, Ohio, a small town 40 miles from Cincinnati, where her uncle owned a lumber mill and was the only Jewish resident. That first summer, Ina really learned English by reading comic books and listening to soap operas. She and her mother moved to Cincinnati and, although she had no birth certificate or school records, Ina passed the entrance exams and interviews at Walnut Hills High School, which she attended with her friend Nancy, the daughter of her uncle’s lawyer. From there she attended the University of Cincinnati and met her future husband, Allen Silbergleit, a medical school student. They moved to the University of Minnesota and then to Detroit in 1962. Ina and Allen have three children: Richard and his wife Alice and their son Matthew; Nina; and Robbie and his wife Catherine and their children Marina and Jay.
Although Ina did not talk to her mother and uncle about their stories, Ina has recently read the book “Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto,” which has helped put her own childhood memories into context.
Date of Interview: June 27, 2011
Length of Interview: 1 hour 9 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran